Bridget’s Favourite Panels – Elizabeth Fry and the Patchwork Quilts
2019 is a special year for both our museum and Bridget Guest, General Manager. Bridget celebrates her own 25th year, alongside that of the Quaker Tapestry Museum. As a designer and embroidery tutor Bridget knows the panels and their stories well and will be sharing her 25 favourite panels with us, as her own unique celebration of the 25th anniversary of Quaker Tapestry Museum.
“In 1818 the British government decided to send female convicts to Australia. Women and their children faced a traumatic journey. Manacled and wearing leg irons they were herded into open flat carts. They were then pulled through the streets to the jeers of the townspeople, pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables and sods of soil, arriving at the ship terrified and filthy. They remained in the ships hold for the entire 17 week voyage.
Elizabeth Fry challenged the appalling conditions of our 19th century prisons. Elizabeth arranged that women would be transported in closed carriages, unmanacled, at night and allowed out of the hold once the ship had sailed. The boredom on the long voyage would lead to fighting and gambling, so Elizabeth introduced a most imaginative scheme. Each woman was to have a bag of useful things, containing; clothing, a comb and brush, soap and towels, a Bible, spectacles, a plate, cutlery, material, wadding, needles, a thimble and threads. Everything needed to make a patchwork quilt during those long days at sea. Elizabeth and her friends visited every ship destined for Botany Bay, 106 ships and 12,000 women in all.
What is believed to be the last surviving ‘bag of useful things’ quilt was found in a drawer in Scotland in the 20th century. Now owned and cared for by the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra. I had the opportunity to see the quilt in 2007, whilst there teaching Quakers the stitches and techniques, in preparation for them embarking on their own Quaker Tapestry.
Robert Bell, Senior Curator at the museum, was interested in the quilt’s connections with the Quaker Tapestry. He kindly arranged a private showing of The Rajah Quilt (named after the ship on which it was made)
Stored in a specially-made drawer it was brought out of hiding by its conservators. The Rajah Quilt is a major focus of Australia’s national textiles collection. While it is a work of great documentary importance in Australia’s history, it is also an extraordinary work of art; a product of beauty from the hands of many women who, while in the most abject circumstances, were able to work together to produce something of hope.
The quilt itself is made using the pieced medallion style common in the late 18th century, especially in Ireland. It consists of a central panel worked with ‘broderie perse’, a term used to describe appliquéd chintz, probably because of its resemblance to Persian embroidery. It is surrounded by a succession of border strips of printed cloth, appliquéd flowers and flower shapes. From the 2815 pieces, you can see a cross-section of contemporary textile technology, its patterns, printing techniques and design influences.
We can see a considerable variation in the creator’s skills. Among the women on that voyage were 15 whose occupations were listed as tailoring or needlework. However, there are small bloodstains still on the quilt – probably from the pricked fingers of some of the less-skilled workers, or slips due to the rough seas!
The conservators, Micheline and Stephanie, with conservator’s gloves, showed me how one of the pieces had been sewn on back to front. This must have been due to the poor light and dismal conditions below deck. The vibrancy of the fabric colours was amazing.
It was returned to Britain to allow the convict ship committee to see one of the fruits of their efforts. Its life and ownership during the following years has yet to be revealed. The Rajah quilt has miraculously endured the ravages of time and physical decay to provide us with a tangible link to Australia’s fragile early society and the women who transcended terrible conditions to work together in the service of art.”
Designed by Joe McCrum and Anne Wynn-Wilson; embroidered by Anne Castle and Friends in Australia, bottom section by children in Taunton and Australian.